Be all that you can be … in Phule's Company: Clumsy, inane, sloppy, reckless, idiotic.
They're the laughingstock of the military. Their latest mission: to guard an intergalactic casino called the Fat Chance from an unlikely criminal takeover.
The odds are against the oddballs.
"If you've never read _Phule's Company_, you're missing out. Don't let the label of Science Fiction fool you if you're not into the genre. This book will keep you entertained, and perhaps even make your chest collapse from the severity of the laughs it brings, even if you don't care for conventional sci-fi. Read it. Mr. Asprin does not falter in the slightest in this second book of the series."– Amazon Review
Contrary to whatever impression might have been created by the first volume of these notes, butlers, even those seasoned by years of experience such as myself, are neither omnipresent nor all-knowing.
To support this assertion, I will acknowledge that I was not present when the call came in from Space Legion Headquarters signaling the start of a new chapter in my employer's career with that organization. In fact, I was not even at "The Club," which is how his current charges refer to the remodeled compound. Rather, it being my day off, I was in the settlement, or, as the Legionnaires call it, "townside." Even in my wildest flights of ego, however, I cannot claim that my absence had any bearing on the timing of the call, Headquarters being unaware of my exact role in relation to my employer, and totally ignorant of my work schedule. It was, at best, an unfortunate happenstance.
Of course, merely being absent is no excuse for someone of my position to lose track of his gentleman. I am the only civilian privileged to wear one of the wrist communicators which have become the trademark of the company under my employer's command, and have gone to great lengths to establish a close rapport with the terminally shy Legionnaire (known affectionately to one and all as "Mother") who oversees all communications. Consequently, I was alerted to the call's existence as soon as it was patched through.
Needless to say, I brought my off-duty pastimes to an immediate halt and returned to the club with all haste, only to find the company in total turmoil.
* * *
The Legionnaires under the command of Captain Jester, known more widely courtesy of his media exposure as Willard Phule, had become passable, and in some cases excellent, marksmen. This was in no small way due to the fact that the design of the country-club-like barracks centered around a wet bar/swimming pool/firing range, which was the troop's favorite hangout during off-duty hours. As they rarely stood duty more than once a week, this meant considerable time was spent lounging about, alternately sipping drinks, dipping in the pool, and pumping rounds downrange for practice, fun, or friendly wagers.
Today, however, the main subject of conversation among the assemblage was not who could shoot better or faster, or even who was ahead on the betting, but rather the unscheduled holo call from Legion Headquarters.
Military units, even more than corporate offices, are vulnerable to rumors, and the Omega Mob was no exception. The fact that no one knew for sure what had been said in the call only added to, rather than dampened, the speculation.
Some thought their commander was being court-martialed … again. Of course, there had been no new activity which would trigger such an action, but there were aspects of their normal modus operandi which would be vulnerable to various degrees of legal discouragement were they known to the authorities, either civil or Legion.
Yet another faction was guessing that their commander was about to be transferred to another unit—a thought which generated a certain amount of terror among those Legionnaires willing to consider the possibility seriously. While the company was now a cohesive unit, and the individuals within it genuinely cared for each other, there was no doubt in any of their minds that their captain was the one who first brought them together, and they feared for the repercussions if he were lost to them.
"Do you really think they'll send the captain to another unit?" one of the Legionnaires fretted, idly splintering chips off his now-empty plastic glass.
His companion grimaced, dangling his feet in the pool. "Sure they will. They assigned him to us as punishment, didn't they? Well, now that things are getting turned around, they're bound to pull him for another assignment."
"Not a chance," someone put in from one of the poolside tables. "Did you see the general's face when he got back on the shuttle? The captain's still in the doghouse as far as Headquarters is concerned."
"I don't know." The original questioner scowled. "Hey, Top! What do you think's going on?"
Brandy, the unit's Amazonian top sergeant, was sprawled at one of the poolside tables, filling the seat and her swimming suit more than amply. She was holding a drink in her right hand and a sidearm in her left, her favorite pose these days, and loosed an occasional shot downrange from where she sat, abandoning neither her seat nor her drinking for the exercise.
"Why ask me?" She shrugged, one strap of her suit slipping from its precarious hold on her shoulder. "Stripes or no, I'm just a grunt like you. Nobody tells me nothin' until it comes to passing out orders. Why don't you ask our fearless leaders?"
The Legionnaire who had asked the question shot a glance at Rembrandt and Armstrong, the company's two lieutenants, but those notables were engrossed in a conversation of their own at the far end of the pool, so he simply shrugged and returned to his original discussion.
One table away, a massive figure bent forward to confer with the figure barely half his size sharing the table with him.
"Gnat. You think Captain will accept transfer?"
Super Gnat, the company's smallest member, turned her attention to her Voltron partner. It was only recently that Tusk-anini had started taking part in the poolside gatherings, as the bright sun hurt his marblelike, nocturnal eyes and the odor given off from his hairy chest, back, arms, and head when wet was, politely put, less than pleasant even to himself. However, by steering clear of the water and utilizing a pair of jury-rigged sun goggles, he was now able to join in on the more social pastimes of the company.
"What's that, Tusk? Oh. No, I don't think he would … If they give him a choice, that is. Sorry. I'm a little worried about the Top. Is it me, or is she drinking more lately?"
"Brandy?" Tusk-anini cranked his huge warthoglike head around to glance at the top sergeant. "I think she worried about captain. She love him, you know."
"She does?" his diminutive partner said, giving him her full attention. "I didn't know that."
Though she had long since grown used to the Voltron's nonhuman appearance, his broken-English speech made it easy to forget that he was easily one of the most intelligent Legionnaires in the company, not to mention one of the most perceptive. Still, when she was reminded of that fact, as she was now, she had a healthy respect for his observations.
"That all right," Tusk-anini said, twisting his features into one of his rare smiles. "Captain not know, either."
Before Super Gnat could pursue the subject further, however, there was a sudden clamor from one side of the pool.
"Hey! Here's the man who can tell us!"
"Hey, Beek! Got a sec?"
The commander's butler, Beeker, had just stepped through the entrance, taking the common shortcut across the pool/firing range area to the captain's quarters. Unfortunately, this might not have been the wisest move. Though the butler was notoriously closemouthed about the confidences shared with him by his employer, the crew was still quick to seize on any chance of information and swarmed to him like locusts after the last ear of corn on the planet.
"What's the word, Beeker?"
"Is HQ after the captain again?"
"Is he being transferred?"
Beeker was on the verge of getting backed against a wall when Brandy, quick despite her size, materialized between him and the advancing horde.
"As you were! All of you!"
This last was directed, along with a glare, at the two lieutenants, who had started to join the throng but now sheepishly resumed their seats.
"Leave the man alone! He doesn't know anything more than we do … and if he did, he couldn't tell us. You know the rules. Official Legion business comes through channels, not from Beeker! Now, back off and let the man do his job!"
The assemblage grumbled and cursed under their breath, but gave ground, reshuffling their groups as they went back to their original speculations.
"Thank you, Brandy," the butler murmured softly. "It was starting to get a bit ugly there for a minute."
The company's top sergeant barely acknowledged the thanks, continuing to glare at the retreating Legionnaires. When she spoke, she did it without moving her lips or looking directly at Beeker.
"Have you heard anything, Beek? Anything you can tell us?"
The butler hesitated, then relented.
"Only that a call came in from Legion Headquarters," he said. "I'm here looking for more information myself."
"Well, you might remind our Fearless Leader that he's got some folks out here who are a little curious about what's happening."
"I'll do my best … and Brandy? Thanks again."
Of course, Brandy had been correct. Beeker was not in the Legion chain of command, being privately employed by Phule, and was therefore doubly constrained from relaying information … both by military procedure and by his professional ethic as a butler. His position did, however, allow him one privilege not accessible to the Legionnaires, that of entering the commander's private quarters without being specifically summoned, and he freely exercised that privilege now, pausing only briefly after knocking before opening the door.
"Oh … Hi, Beeker. Come on in. I want your opinion on something."
Willard Phule was sprawled in a chair, his lanky form the picture of casual relaxation. To the butler, however, this pose conveyed the exact opposite message. Normally Phule was the embodiment of nervous energy during the day, constantly pacing and fidgeting as he tried to do or consider a dozen things at once. For him to sit still, as he was doing now, required a crisis of monumental proportions, one which would put all other worries and tasks on a back burner while he weighed and considered the immediate problem. In short, anytime he seemed relaxed physically, it meant that he was racing about mentally.
"Is there a problem, sir?" Beeker prompted, pointedly closing the door behind him.
"You might say that. I just got a call from Headquarters giving us a new assignment, and—"
"Is that a new assignment for the entire company, or just for the two of us?" the butler interrupted.
"What? Oh. For the entire company. Why?"
"You might want to announce that to your command as soon as possible, sir. They seemed quite anxious when I passed though the pool area just now."
"I don't know," Phule said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "I was planning to wait until I had a better fix on this new assignment before announcing it. It's always nice to have the information clear yourself before opening the door to questions and answers."
"If you'll forgive my saying so, sir, I really think you should say something to quiet their minds. They're aware that a call has come in from Headquarters, and many of them are concerned that you are being removed from the command of this unit."
"I see. Well, I'll put a stop to that right now."
As he spoke, Phule raised his wrist communicator to his mouth and pressed a button.
"Yes, Captain," came the immediate response without any of that Legionnaire's usual banter.
"Is everyone in range for a general broadcast?"
"That's a big affirmative. Truth to tell, they're all hangin' so close you could probably just raise your voice and save the batteries."
A brief smile flitted across Phule's face.
"I think I'll follow normal procedure anyway … just for practice. Give me a broadcast channel."
"You got it, Big Daddy. We're all ears."
Without thinking, Phule dropped into a deeper, formal voice as he began his announcement.
"If I could have your attention for a moment … I have been told that some of you are worried about the recent call from Legion Headquarters. All I can tell you at the moment is that we are being reassigned. I repeat, we are being reassigned … That's the entire unit. Details will be provided at a formal briefing tonight at twenty hundred hours. Officers, please stand by. Your presence will soon be required for a strategy session. That is all."
He clicked off his com unit and leaned back, winking at his butler.
"There, I think that should do it."
"Quite. Thank you, sir."
"Okay, now that that's taken care of, I have something I want you to see."
Phule waved Beeker toward a chair as he rose and fiddled with the holo unit that occupied the better part of one wall of his quarters. He had purchased and installed this unit as a supplement to the one issued the company specifically to ease the reception of calls from Headquarters. Of course, unlike the issued model, this one also had a record and playback capacity.
"This is a replay of the call I just received," he said. "I want to know what you think of it."
As he spoke, the image of General Blitzkrieg materialized in the room, seated at his desk, leaning forward on his elbows, his hands clasped in front of him.
"Good morning, Captain Jester." The image smiled. "Sorry to wake you so early."
"Actually," came Phule's phantom voice, "it's afternoon here, sir."
While interstellar communications were now commonplace, the problem of coordinating days, much less hours, between widely separated settlements still remained.
"Whatever." The general shrugged. "I have some good news for you, Captain. You and your company are being reassigned to a new duty. Orders are being cut, which will be sent to you along with the detailed briefing material, but I thought I should call you personally to let you know what's going on."
"That's good of you, sir. What is the new assignment?"
"It's a really sweet job." The general smiled. "Basic security guard work, actually. The nice part is that you'll be guarding the Fat Chance—the newest, biggest casino on Lorelei. Easy duty in paradise, if you ask me. What do you say to that?"
"My first reaction would have to be 'Why us?' … sir."
The general's smile tightened a little.
"Mostly because the owner specifically requested you and your outfit, Captain. I guess all that showboating you've been doing for the media is finally paying dividends."
"What I meant, sir, was why turn to the Space Legion at all? Our fees are significantly higher than any number of normal uniformed security services. Who is the owner, anyway?"
"I have it right here," the general said, referring to a sheet of paper on the desk before him. "Yes. Here it is. The contracting party is Gunther Rafael."
"I find that hard to believe."
"What was that, Captain?"
"There are two things wrong with that, General," Phule said hurriedly. "First of all, while I've never met Mr. Rafael, I'm familiar with his reputation, and he's always been dead set against gambling of any form. Consequently, it's hard for me to believe that he owns a casino."
"I see." The general frowned. "And the other?"
"The other thing is that Gunther Rafael died nearly a year ago.
"He did?" Blitzkrieg was scowling now, examining the paper again. "Ah! Here's the problem. My mistake, Captain. It's Gunther Rafael, Junior, that's hiring you. Apparently the son doesn't share his father's dislike of gambling. Does that answer your question?"
"Not my first question: Why us?"
"Maybe he thinks hiring you will generate some publicity. You'll have to ask Mr. Rafael that," the general said. "But let me warn you, Captain, it's not Legion policy to try to discourage clients from hiring us. Get my drift?"
"Very well. As I said, your orders will be forthcoming. Another Legion company has been dispatched to take over your current assignment. You and your company are to leave for Lorelei as soon as they arrive. Is that clear?"
"All right. Enjoy your new assignment, Captain Jester. Blitzkrieg out."
Phule turned off the holo unit and sank into a chair.
"All right, Beeker," he said. "What's wrong with this picture?"
The butler pursed his lips thoughtfully.
"Well," he said, "aside from the obvious questions raised by your getting your assignment directly from General Blitzkrieg as opposed to Colonel Battleax, who is your immediate superior in the so-called chain of command, I guess my feelings could be summed up in one question: Why is this man smiling?"
The commander made little beckoning circles with his hand.
"It has been my distinct impression," the butler continued, "that the general holds you in something less than highest esteem. In fact, it would be safe to say that he would rather chew ground glass than give you the time of day, much less do you a favor. I therefore think it would be safe to assume that if he is taking the time to inform you personally of your new assignment, and is happy about doing it, the assignment is in all probability much less desirable than he is making it out to be."
"Check." Phule nodded. "A bit long-winded, perhaps, but dead on the money with my own assessment."
"You did ask me to elaborate, sir," Beeker said, a little stung by the "long-winded" accusation.
"The problem is," the commander continued as if his butler hadn't spoken, "how to find out what the trap is before we step in it."
"If I might say so, sir, I believe the general himself has given you the answer to that problem."
"You could check the recording again, but as I recall, he specifically instructed you to obtain additional information on the assignment directly from the casino owner."
"He did, didn't he?" Phule smiled, then raised his wrist communicator once more.
"Yes, O Exalted One?"
"Put a call through for me. I want to speak with Gunther Rafael, Junior … at the Fat Chance Casino on Lorelei."
* * *
The call took nearly an hour to put through, though most of that time seemed to be spent trying to locate the person who was to receive it. When Gunther Rafael finally did take the call, the image which formed before Phule was less than encouraging.
What the holo-projection showed was an acned youth who didn't look old enough to be admitted to a casino, much less own one.
"Mr. Phule?" the image said, peering at a point slightly to the left of where Phule was standing. "Hi. Gunther Rafael here. Gee, I'm really glad you called … I've been waiting to hear from you for a long time now."
"You have?" Phule was a little taken aback at this.
"Well, yeah. I sent in my request for your services nearly a month ago, and the Space Legion accepted it almost immediately. "
From the corner of his eye, Phule saw Beeker lean back in his chair and stare at the ceiling, and knew the time lapse between the acceptance of the contract and their notification of its existence wasn't lost on the butler.
"I see," the Legionnaire said. "Well, I only received the assignment recently, and was hoping you could provide me with a few more details so I could brief my troops before we arrive."
The youth frowned. "It's not that hard to understand. I thought I made it clear in my request. I want you to keep those scumbags from taking over my casino, and I don't care if you have to gun every one of them down to do it!"
Beeker was suddenly sitting upright in his chair, staring at the image in disbelief. Of course, the way the cameras were situated, the only image being sent was that of Phule, who held up his hand in a gesture of restraint.
"Mr. Rafael …" he began.
"Please, make it 'Gunther,'" the youth interrupted with a quick smile.
"Very well"—Phule nodded—"and in return, please call me 'Jester.'"
"Jester? But aren't you—"
"It's my name within the Legion," Phule explained with a shrug. "Anyway … Gunther … the information channels within the Legion can be slow and often distort the details of the original request, which is why I'm calling you directly. To be sure we're both on the same wavelength, could you briefly explain the assignment to me … as if I were hearing it for the first time?"
"Well, since Dad died, I've been liquidating his holdings so I could finally try to make my dream come true: to own and run the biggest and best hotel and casino on Lorelei—"
"Have you ever owned or worked in a casino before?" Phule interrupted.
"No … but I know it can be done! I can offer better odds than any other casino on Lorelei and still turn a profit. I worked it all out on paper in college. What's more, I can attract the bulk of the tourists if they know they're getting the best odds and that the games are straight." Gunther's eyes were alight with enthusiasm.
Phule, on the other hand, was unmoved.
"But you've never actually worked in a casino before."
"No, I haven't," the youth admitted with a grimace. "That's why I've hired an experienced casino manager, Huey Martin, to run things for me while I learn."
"I see," the Legionnaire said, making a mental note of the name. "Go on."
"Well, a while back I learned that there was a chance that criminals were going to try to take over my place once it was open, and I didn't know what to do. The police here on Lorelei may be great for keeping the muggers away from the tourists, but they aren't up to handling anything like this! Then I saw the reports on how you managed to stop an alien invasion with just a handful of troops, and figured if you could do that, you should be able to stop common crooks from taking over my casino."
"So that's the assignment," Phule said slowly, steadfastly ignoring Beeker, who was now slumped in his chair, his arms folded, one hand over his eyes. "To guard your casino against a hostile takeover by a gang of criminals."
"Sure." Gunther beamed. "I figure with your uniformed troops standing in full view, the customers will feel safer, and those scumbags will think twice before they try any rough stuff."
"All right … there are several things I'm going to need, Gunther, and I'd appreciate it if you could transmit them to me here on Haskin's Planet as soon as possible. I'm going to want copies of the floor plans and blueprints for the hotel—particularly the casino area—showing electrical and security systems. I also want to see copies of all your personnel files on all employees, starting with Huey Martin's, and … did you say you weren't open yet?"
"Well, parts of the casino are open, but I'm doing a lot of remodeling. There's going to be a big grand opening to launch the new operation."
"We can't leave our current assignment until our replacements arrive," Phule said, almost to himself, "then there's time in transit, and … Gunther, can you hold your grand opening until at least a week after we arrive?"
"I … guess so. Why do you want my personnel records?"
"Let's just say I like to have some idea of who's at our backs while we're standing guard … Oh, and speaking of personnel, have you made arrangements for housing my troops?"
"Sure. I was going to have them stay at one of the small hotels down the Strip."
"Cancel that. I want them to have rooms at the Fat Chance. A hundred rooms and a penthouse."
"But rooms at the Fat Chance go for—"
"They're supposed to be guarding your hotel and casino," Phule said pointedly. "They can't do that if they're at another location when trouble hits, can they?"
"I … guess not. All right. I suppose with over a thousand rooms I can spare a hundred. Is that all?"
Phule nodded. "For the moment. I'll probably be getting back to you soon with some additional requests, but that'll give me a starting point."
"Okay. I'll tell you, Mr. Jester, I'll sleep a lot easier now knowing you're on the job."
The youth's image faded as the connection was broken.
For several moments, Phule and Beeker stared silently at the place in the room it had occupied. Finally, the commander cleared his throat.
"How in the world did someone that ignorant and naive get to be a multimillionaire?"
"Not to belabor the obvious, sir," Beeker said softly, "I believe he inherited it."
Phule wrinkled his nose in disgust. While he had borrowed seed money from his munitions-baron father, he had long since paid it all back, with interest, and considered his wealth to be self-made. As such, he had little tolerance for those who inherited their wealth, and none at all for those who were foolish with what money they had.
"Oh well," he said, "it takes all kinds … I guess. At least now we know what we're up against with this assignment."
"A know-nothing kid trying to run a casino on book theories and hired expertise," Beeker recited grimly. "Not exactly the cushy guard duty in paradise that General Blitzkrieg was trying to paint it as, is it, sir? Oh yes … and let us not forget the possibility of an attempted criminal takeover."
"You know, that's the part that bothers me the most." The commander scowled. "Check me on this, Beek … you stay more abreast of current events than I do. These days, when crime, organized or otherwise, wants to take over a business, do they do it with guns blazing?"
The butler made a soft but rude noise before answering.
"Not to my knowledge, sir. It's my understanding that the usual tactic is to force them into financial difficulty, then buy them out cheap—or, at least, a controlling interest."
Phule nodded. "That's what I thought. More like a hostile stock takeover. Well, I've handled those before."
The butler looked at him sharply.
"If I might point out, sir, the methods the criminal element utilizes to put financial pressure on a business are well outside civilized law. I would suggest it would be prudent not to underestimate your opponents."
"I appreciate the advice, Beeker," Phule said, "but for your information, the crowd I'm accustomed to playing with has little regard for civilized law. I have not succeeded in the past by underestimating an opponent … nor by underestimating myself."
"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir."
"Enough of that," the commander said. "It's time we got to work. I hope your fingers are rested, Beek, 'cause there's a bit of non-Legion business I want you to take care of for me. We're going to be doing some hiring, and I'd like you to do the initial screening and have your recommendations on my desk by noon tomorrow."
"Very well, sir." The butler was not fazed by the sudden change in mood and topic, nor by the request. The two men had worked together for a long time. "And our requirements are …?"
"First, I need a solid casino security man—someone with experience and unquestionable references. Top dollar for the right man. Also, I want at least half a dozen instructors who can teach the table games. Check with the dealers' schools—buy one if you have to—but I need them all here. Charter a ship, too, before our replacements arrive. Offer them all a half year's wages, but we'll only need them from the hiring date until our transport hits the last big port before Lorelei … What would that be?"
"Port Lowe, sir."
"Right. Next …" Phule allowed himself a small smile. "This may be a little out of the ordinary for you, Beek, but I need to set up a cattle call."
"An audition. Find out what our first stop is after we leave here, then use the computer to pull up data on available actors and actresses at that location—bit players only. We don't need any recognizable faces."
"Very well, sir. May I ask what you'll be doing in the meantime … in case I need to confer with you on any of this?"
"Me?" The commander smiled. "I'll be doing my homework … seeing what I can learn about organized crime. I think I'll drop into the settlement and pay a visit to our old friend Chief Goetz."
"That won't be necessary, sir."
"Excuse me, Beek?"
"I believe you'll find Chief Goetz at poolside here at The Club. He gave me a lift back from the settlement, and he rarely passes on the opportunity to mix with your troops."
"You got the chief of police to play taxi driver for you?" Phule seemed genuinely impressed.
"Actually, sir, he offered. I was at his home at the time."
"Yes, sir. I've been tutoring his son in algebra on my days off."
The commander laughed and shook his head. "Beeker," he said, "what would I do without you?"
The butler smiled. "I'm sure I don't know, sir."